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Obama Administration Launches Smart Cities Initiative

Words by Leon Kaye

With urbanization on the rise in the U.S., coupled with the lack of appetite for investment in major infrastructure projects, cities are looking for new ways to manage growth in this era of tight budgets.

Hence the smart cities movement, which has a different meaning depending on who you ask. Attracting new industries, solving transportation gridlock and ensuring environmental sustainability are just a few examples that fall under this umbrella, as municipal leaders seek new ideas to make their communities viable and attractive places for residents to live, learn, work and play.

This week, the Obama administration announced a new smart cities initiative that promises $160 million in federal grants to help cities find new solutions to timeless problems. The total amount is coming from a bevy of federal agencies -- which either signals greater collaboration, or a turf war. The agencies involved include the National Science Foundation; the departments of Homeland Security, Commerce and Energy; the Environmental Protection Agency; and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Projects that will be funded range from a “research infrastructure” for smart cities to funds for health care, public safety, transport and climate preparedness. Critical to the implementation of these programs will be a partnership with the research initiative MetroLab. Based in Pittsburgh, the organization is an alliance of 20 metropolitan areas and 25 universities that are focused on the research, development and implementation of technologies that can enable communities to leverage technology so that they can become more efficient and sustainable.

These programs are an expansion of what the White House claims is a locally-based and technology-focused approach to help cities deal with growth and infrastructure challenges. Along with the federal monies to be dispersed, the White House also announced a variety of public-private programs that are underway to assist cities in coping with issues related to economic growth, water, energy and waste.

IBM, for example, will work with the mayor’s office in Detroit to find new ways to remove blight and debris from abandoned properties. New York City will open laboratories across its five boroughs to test and deploy new smart cities technologies. And Santa Clara County, which is hosting Super Bowl 50, will create a partnership of municipal agencies and the San Francisco 49ers to optimize local public safety and public transportation systems.

This week’s announcement will foment its fair share of catcalls, especially from those who have long insisted that the United Nations' voluntary Agenda 21 sustainable development guidelines are an affront to America sovereignty. The mention of technology also will bring up images of Jade Helm 15, the military exercises in the American Southwest that some feared were a way for the federal government to impose martial law in Texas.

But in all seriousness, and in the context of the size of the federal government’s budget, these smart cities programs offer the chance to experiment with cost-effective solutions that, if successful, can be replicated across the country and even the world. And the fact remains that while many of us lament federal largess, the reality is that the government often wastes money by refusing to spend smaller amounts of money upfront to solve a problem — instead, bureaucrats wait until disaster strikes, with the result that millions, or even billions, are spent to fix massive infrastructure failures that could have been prevented if a smaller amount had been spent when problems were evident in the first place.

One example of how technology can help avoid pricey infrastructure projects is a smart sewer system in South Bend, Indiana, home to Notre Dame University and approximately 100,000 residents. The city harnessed a technology, CSOnet, which monitors wastewater in real-time through a system of wireless sensors installed throughout the city’s sewer mains.

At times of excessive rainfall, these sensors can automatically instruct so-called smart valves to redirect outflows to avoid discharge into the city’s largest river. In addition to the environmental benefits, South Bend avoided $120 million in conventional civil engineering projects’ costs, notably the digging up of city streets and sidewalks, by investing $6 million in the software.

If the end result of this smart cities program is a 21st-century approach to solving problems that date back to the 19th century, the results could be a collective big bang for the buck.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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